How to choose the right AP Physics Exam

There are four AP Physics exams you can choose from. Students often ask us what the differences between the exams, and how can they choose the correct one to take. We are pleased to provide this information so you can make the right choice suitable for you.
How to choose the right AP Physics Exam
1. Overview of the AP Physics Exam

There are a total of 4 AP Physics exams: AP Physics 1, AP Physics 2, AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, and AP Physics C: Mechanics. The main contents of each subject exam are as follows: 

AP Physics 1: is a full-year course that is the equivalent of a first-semester introductory college course in algebra-based physics. Topics covered include: kinematics, dynamics, circular motion and gravitation, energy, momentum, simple harmonic motion, torque, and rotational motion, electric charge and electric force, DC circuits, and mechanical waves and sound 

AP Physics 2:  is a full-year course, equivalent to a second-semester introductory college course in physics. Students are expected to learn fluids; thermodynamics; electrical force, field, and potential; electric circuits; magnetism and electromagnetic induction; geometric and physical optics; and quantum, atomic, and nuclear physics 

AP Physics C: Mechanics: is a half-year course equivalent to a semester-long, introductory calculus-based college course. It covers kinematics; Newton’s laws of motion; work, energy, and power; systems of particles and linear momentum; circular motion and rotation; oscillations; and gravitation 

AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism is a half-year course following Physics C: Mechanics and is equivalent to a semester-long, introductory calculus-based college course. 

The course explores topics such as electrostatics; conductors, capacitors, and dielectrics; electric circuits; magnetic fields; and electromagnetism. Introductory differential and integral calculus are used throughout the course 

Takeaways from the course descriptions:  

  • AP Physics 1 is a first-year physics course that you can take without prior physics learning, while AP Physics 2 is designed to be a follow-on course with more topics.  
  • In addition to mastering the topics covered in AP Physics 1, AP Physics 2 students delve into deeper and broader topics compared to AP Physics 1 
  • The two AP Physics C courses equal a calculus-based college course. Therefore, students should already be enrolled or have completed calculus in order to take these classes. 
  • Many of the topics introduced in Physics C – Mechanics are already discussed in Physics 1 (Newton’s Law, kinematics, etc.). What makes Physics C harder than Physics 1 is the breadth and depth of the topics, as well as the use of calculus in Physics C – Mechanics 
  • Similarly, Physics C – Electricity and Magnetism and Physics 2 have some topics overlaps, but Physics C is harder because of the application of calculus.  
2. Exam Information

AP Physics 1  

  • Exam time: 3 hours
  • Exam distribution: 

Section I: Multiple choice questions: 50 questions, 1 hour and 30 minutes in total, accounting for 50% of the test score 

Section II Paper Exam: Short answer questions: 5 questions, 1 hour and 30 minutes in total, accounting for 50% of the test score. 5 free-response questions are divided into Experimental Design questions (1 question), Qualitative/Quantitative Translation (1 question), short answer questions (3 questions, one requires a longer explanation – Paragraph Argument) 

Section II Digital Exam: Multiple Choice and Free Response questions, accounting for 50% of test score. 25 multiple-choice questions, and 2 free-response questions. Free-response questions are divided into Qualitative/Quantitative Translation (1 question) and Short Answer: Paragraph Argument (1 question)

AP Physics 2  

  • Exam time: 3 hours 
  • Exam distribution: 

Section I: Multiple choice questions: 50 questions, 1 hour and 30 minutes in total, accounting for 50% of the test score 

Section II Paper Exam: Short answer questions: 4 questions, 1 hour and 30 minutes in total, accounting for 50% of the test score. Questions are divided into Experimental Design questions (1 question), Qualitative/Quantitative Translation (1 question), short answer questions (2 questions, one requires a longer explanation – Paragraph Argument) 

Section II Digital Exam:  Multiple Choice and Free Response section, accounting for 50% of test score. 25 multiple-choice questions, and 2 free-response questions. Free-response questions are divided into Qualitative/Quantitative Translation (1 question) and Short Answer: Paragraph Argument (1 question) 

AP Physics C – Mechanics  

  • Exam time: 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Exam distribution: 

Section I: Multiple choice questions: 35 questions, 45 minutes in total, accounting for 50% of the test score 

Section II Paper Exam: Free response: 3 questions, a total of 45 minutes, accounting for 50% of the test score. One of the 3 free-response questions will include an experimental or lab-based component. 

Section II Digital Exam:  Multiple Choice: 35 questions, 45 minutes in total, accounting for 50% of the test score. Questions are either discrete questions or question sets, in which students may be provided with a stimulus or a set of data and a series of related questions. 

AP Physics C – Electricity and Magnetism 

  • Exam time: 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Exam distribution: 

Section I: Multiple choice questions: 35 questions, 45 minutes in total, accounting for 50% of the test score 

Section II Paper Exam: Free response: 3 questions, a total of 45 minutes, accounting for 50% of the test score. One of the 3 free-response questions will include an experimental or lab-based component. 

Section II Digital Exam:  Multiple Choice: 35 questions, 45 minutes in total, accounting for 50% of the test score. Questions are either discrete questions or question sets, in which students may be provided with a stimulus or a set of data and a series of related questions. 

3. Taking into consideration college credits

Before choosing which AP Physics classes are the right one for you, we recommend that you review the college credit transfer opportunities at potential colleges you want to study at and for the majors that you are considering 

We provide examples from Northeastern University about the college credits it grants for AP Physics during the 2020-2021 school year. 

Northeastern accepts AP scores of 4 or 5 for credit:  

  • Physics 1: can be counted as 5 semester hours equivalent to the class PHYS1145/1146: Physics for Life Sciences 1/Lab 
  • Physics 2: can be counted as 5 semester hours equivalent to the class PHYS1147/1148 Physics for Life Sciences 2/Lab  
  • Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism can be counted as 5 semester hours equivalent to the classes PHYS1155/1156 & PHYS1157: Physics for Engineering 2/Lab & Interactive Learning for PHSY1155 
  • Physics C: Mechanics can be counted as 5 semester hours w equivalent to the classes PHYS1151/1152 & 1153 Physics for Engineering 1/Lab & Interactive Learning for PHYS1151 

Any degree within the Physics department, for instance, Chemical Engineering and Physics, requires 10 semester hours of study in Physics 1x to complete its Mathematics/Science requirements, out of 139 total semester hours required.  

From the financial perspective, transferring AP exam scores to 10 semester hours in college will save you $1,699/semester hour, and a total of $16,990 for 10 semester hours.  

From the coursework perspective, having 10 semester hours transferred in allows you to keep your college coursework options open, as you can register for more courses tailored to your interests.  

4. How to choose the right AP Physics Exam?

After understanding the differences among AP Physics subjects, the next question is “How should you choose a course that suits you?” There are students who would like to take 2 AP Physics courses but are wondering which course they should start with first. Below, we provide suggestions for the order of course selection.

1. Take Regular/Honors Physics first, then AP Physics 2

If your school does not offer the AP Physics 1 course, or you don’t want to register for AP Physics right at the beginning of the school year, you can start from the general or honors courses for physics. Upon completion of the course, you then can register for AP Physics 2. This option is ideal for students whose school does not provide both AP physics classes and who do not have time to take multiple AP physics classes. 

2. Take AP Physics 1, then AP Physics 2

According to the official AP system: Studying Physics 1 and 2 provides students with solid background knowledge about physics, in preparation for students to study medicine, geology, and life sciences in the future. At the same time, it is also a good choice for students who do not plan to major in science but want to meet their future university’s requirements for science courses. 

3. Take AP Physics 1, then AP Physics C

Advanced Placement recommends that students who plan to major in engineering or physics in college should study AP Physics C (along with Calculus AB or BC). However, it is not necessary to take all AP physics courses, because you will not have enough time in school to study biology and chemistry as well. For students with an interest in a science or engineering major in university, having school resources and support for all three natural science courses is essential for a comprehensive and challenging high school academic journey.  

5. Score Distribution

The score distribution of each AP physics exam is also a good reference for students to prepare accordingly. The following is the score distribution of each AP Physics exam in 2020: 

Subject 

5 points 

4 points 

3 points 

2 minutes 

1 point 

AP Physics 1 

8.8% 

17.9% 

24.8% 

26.5% 

21.9% 

AP Physics 2 

14% 

24.3% 

35% 

21.3% 

5.4% 

AP Physics C Mechanics 

40.4% 

22.4% 

11.6% 

16.2% 

9.5% 

AP Physics C Electricity and Magnetism 

41.6% 

26.4% 

16.3% 

9.2% 

6.5% 

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AP PHYSICS PREP PROGRAM

Description: This online course is the perfect opportunity for students to prepare to take an AP Physics course at their host institution. Taught by an experienced AP Physics teacher, this interactive course focuses on strong conceptual development in the most challenging areas of the AP Physics curriculum. The online sessions will cover the salient points in the most traditionally arduous areas of the College Board’s curriculum, beginning with kinematics, dynamics, circular motion and gravitation, work and energy, impulse and momentum, rotational mechanics, and finally oscillations and harmonic oscillators.

Project time: Rolling enrollment throughout the year, one class every weekend, 1.5 hours per class 

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